Monday, 2 December 2013

Monday 2 December 1963

For Wales and the West this week John Betjeman waxes lyrical on Marlborough in Wiltshire (pronounced "Maulborough", if you weren't aware), and especially on his own former school, Marlborough College.  The film shows us a lost world of fagging and making toast over the fire in your room (well, I say lost.  I've never been in a public school in my life, so I've no idea if this sort of thing still goes on.  Though I suspect the odd electric toaster might have been sneaked in).  As someone who never goes out into the cold without toggles securely fastened it's especially pleasing to see such a preponderance of duffle coats.

Another famed aspect of public school life (one which in the 21st century would be more likely to be known as "fagging") is unsurprisingly left untouched, though it's clear the hormones of the school's pupils are a-raging.

It's the glorious ordinariness of Betjeman's verse musings that make them so compelling:"The dining hall we're looking at is new/I wonder if it smells of Irish stew/In the same way the old one used to do."  Some lines ("Time to digest a sausage; time to fly") are crying out to be sampled by some mastermind of ethereal electronica.

The film, like the classic schoolboy of fiction, is especially interested in food.  And as it's the now almost exotically plain looking British food of the early 60s this makes it especially interesting to me.

Next tonight we greet the return of John Wilder, defeated in his bid for the chairmanship of aircraft manufacturers Scott-Furlong but unbowed.

Wilder has a new objective in mind: a knighthood.  To this end he's schmoozing with government ministers for all he's worth.  As he prepares to greet one of them diligent secretary Kay Lingard makes sure he's presentable.

Various hints are dropped throughout the episode that after her sabotage of her husband's chairmanship bid, Mrs Wilder's no longer around to perform duties like these - the most vivid being Wilder's fury when PR man Steve Miller (Donald Morley) asks if she might be available for an interview for a woman's magazine.

The minister visiting Scott-Furlong's played by George Woodbridge, best known for his character turns in early Hammer horror films.  Perhaps it's the legacy of all those rubicund innkeepers he played, but Woodbridge just seems too much of a yokel to be convincing in the role -especially as he's meant to be a Tory.

Meanwhile, Tony Maccabee (Malcolm Webster), another of Scott-Furlong's PR chaps, is in Westminster trying to sweet talk another MP, Keith Saville (Richard Vernon), an influential backbencher with his finger in a lot of pies.

One of the pies Saville's fingering is a South American business run by a man named Vega, who's in the market for jets, and who Scott-Furlong have been trying to woo.  Saville's no fan of Wilder's, so it's a bit of a surprise when he agrees to accompany Maccabee straightaway to Paris, to nab Vega from under the noses of Scott-Furlong's French rivals.

Unfortunately, Act One of Strings in Whitehall is The Plane Makers as the kind of stiflingly dull business soap it usually manages to rise above, but a couple of developments in Act Two help to perk things up a bit.  The first of these is the arrival of the colourful (metaphorically speaking) Vega, as well as the extensive family he never travels anywhere without.  Vega's played by Bruce Boa, for a long time British TV's go-to American, though I've never before seen him play the Latin kind.

There's also some terrific verbal sparring between Patrick Wymark and Richard Vernon as they take Vega out on a test flight, Vernon's loucheness a splendid foil for Wymark's steely cunning.

And what's more, we get to marvel at an extremely unfortunate visual effect that perhaps explains why we've never seen the Scott-Furlong Sovereign in flight before.  Maybe best to stick to stock footage in future.

Wilder casually drops in to conversation the scandalously huge amount of commission Scott-Furlong's agents around the world get for securing sales of their aircraft - then asks Vega if he'd like to become their agent in South America.  He readily agrees, and his purchase of a pair of Sovereigns looks set to go ahead - as long as the government can help the company reach a repayment plan that will keep everyone happy.

That evening Wilder's set to be interviewed on TV, and dramatically alters his prepared script so it becomes an attack on the government's reluctance to help out business, giving his minister friend a sneak preview before he goes on air...

As Scott-Furlong's sales manager Don Henderson prepares to watch the interview, he's terrified that it could have awful consequences for the company...

...But Wilder only has glowing praise for the government.  It looks like he's got what he wanted.

Finally this evening, a detour into the world of current affairs.

A week after the assassination of President Kennedy, it's "What the Americans call Thanksgiving: but in Dallas, where the people probably have more riches to give thanks for than any other city on Earth, there is no thankfulness."

The documentary shows us that first post-JFK Thanksgiving in Dallas, focusing in particular on:

The obscene wealth of its richest citizens.  As various local notables appear on screen, the prim voiceover invariably reminds us that this person is, of course, a millionaire.  Why these people even buy clothes for their dogs!

The gap between rich and poor.  While a millionaire geologist and his family are shown enjoying a lavish turkey dinner in their luxurious home, the black people of the town have to make do with tinned food.

Right-wing nutcases.  These are most vividly represented by the deceptively sweet-looking Mrs Beth Anderson Rochelle, a publicist for the John Birch society, the city's most powerful right-wing activist group.  Like the scariest Joan Crawford character ever, Mrs Rochelle's calm explanation of her belief in the American people to look after themselves without help from the government is belied by the maniacal glint in her eye.

I've no idea how accurate a picture of Dallas in 1963 this documentary gives, but what makes it fascinating TV Minus 50 fodder is what it says about the British view of the US at the time.  The programme makers' attitude seems to lie somewhere between condescension, bafflement and stark terror.  One moment in particular illustrates how much more closely our culture's become entwined with that across the pond since 1963.  As we're shown a group of Dallas children greeting a special visitor, the voiceover explains to us that while to us this is clearly Father Christmas, in America he's known as Santa Claus.

1 comment:

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